Neighbourhood Effects in Cross-Atlantic Perspective: A Longitudinal Analysis of Impacts on Intergenerational Mobility in the United States and Germany

Blog by Junia Howell

25 Oct 2018, 10:05 a.m.
Junia Howell



When I first had the opportunity to travel to Europe, I was struck by the similarities and differences between European and American impoverished neighbourhoods. Having grown up in a marginalised community myself, I was intimately familiar with the lack of institutional resources and compounding inequities in most U.S. poor neighbourhoods. Thus, I immediately noticed how despite their challenges European neighbourhoods had more infrastructural resources than their American counterparts. At the same time, however, I was struck by the sociocultural similarities. Even though I did not realise it at the time, this planted a seed—a question. How do impoverished communities differ across national context and do any of these differences minimise the generational poverty often observed in U.S. impoverished neighbourhoods?

Years later, I returned to this question. Unlike when I first was observing national differences in impoverished communities, I had now read hundreds of studies on the influence impoverished neighbourhoods have on their residents’ intergenerational mobility. These studies are conducted all around the world. Yet, surprisingly no one had conducted an empirical cross-national investigation where they analysed observations from multiple countries in one statistical model. This is for good reason. The data used in these types of studies is highly restricted and fairly complicated. Nevertheless, I embarked on a yearlong journey to combined data from two countries—Germany and the United States.

I selected Germany and the United States as ideal types—or good examples—of the contrasting approaches nation states have towards neighbourhoods. In the United States, cultivating distinct neighbourhoods have long been seen as a way to build community and strong networks. To this end, schools, post-offices, libraries, parks and other public amenities are often neighbourhood based. In theory this enables residents of large cities to build small town like connections within their residential community. However, in practice, this results in highly unequal neighbourhood schools, parks, etc… In Germany, on the other hand, amenities and government services are more centrally controlled meaning that where residents live has a smaller effect on which school they attend and the quality of local amenities.

Noting these differences, I conducted a comparison of intergenerational economic mobility from the 1970s to the present day. I hold individual and family factors constant and find neighbourhoods have a larger impact on residents’ mobility in the United States than Germany. This is because of two main reasons. First, the high level of racial segregation in the United States exacerbates the effects of neighbourhoods. Second, U.S. neighbourhood based amenities and resources compounds existing inequalities.

Nonetheless, neighbourhoods do matter in Germany. In both Germany and the United States the socioeconomic status of one’s neighbours influences residents’ networks, norms and expectations which in turn impact economic mobility. In other words, some of the sociocultural similarities I casually observed years ago are comparable in the two countries. Additionally, Turkish residents in Germany are similar to Black Americans when it comes to the level of economic discrimination—suggesting Germany also needs to address interlocking forms of racial inequality.

So what is to be done? Well, scholars often suggest resources in low socioeconomic status neighbourhoods need to be increased or low income residents need to be relocated. This is part of the story. Yet, my research highlights that changing the very role neighbourhoods play in residents’ lives is also important. The idealised conception of neighbourhoods as distinct small towns perpetuates inequity since it fosters competition for resources amongst adjacent neighbourhoods. Nation states and city governments need to consider how they can ensure resources are distributed across all residents and how all communities are accessible to residents of various socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.


Read the paper on Urban Studies - OnlineFirst here



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